*Acronyms used: BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, People of Color; HWLs = Historically White Led organizations; DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
I’m a vegetarian, so I’m always on the hunt (pun intended) for plant-based protein sources. I use tofu when I want to really taste the ingredients of a marinade, since tofu does a great job of carrying the flavors around it. When I use Soyrizo (a vegetarian chorizo), I know that everything else in the dish will bow to its intense flavor. And, when I want to create a balanced flavor profile, I use Field Roast because it carries its own flavor while allowing the rest of the ingredients to gently follow and be amplified in turn.
And this got me thinking about being a racial minority employee in a predominantly white workplace.
(Not kidding. This is how my brain works.)
As a woman of color, I spent my career in mainstream environmentalism, which is a very white sector. And so it’s no surprise that most of my career has been in historically white led organizations (HWLs). Many of these organizations were working hard to racially diversify their staffs: revamping job descriptions to be more inclusive, posting on BIPOC listserves, sharing their Diversity/Equity/Inclusions (DEI) statements on their websites, etc. But the reality is that I was still often part of a small minority of BIPOC staff members, especially as I rose in management and leadership ranks (side note: there are often plenty of BIPOC staffers in entry level, seasonal, and/or ‘back of house’ jobs like kitchens and maintenance…but that is an important issue of workplace segregation that deserves its own future blog post).
So, what does this have to do with vegetarian protein options? Well, I constantly had to figure out what my stance was on the DEI work happening in the HWLs: would I be tofu that stepped back and allowed others to push the work? Or, would I be Soyrizo that spoke up loudly and defiantly against the status quo? Or, would I voice my opinions in a highly polished, balanced, “professional” manner like Field Roast? This was a constant internal conversation I had with myself. Seriously. It was constant. BIPOC in HWLs risk a lot when we do DEI work. This is not just an initiative for us. It’s about the communities we represent in ways that our white counterparts can’t. It’s about surviving and thriving in this work when we are often in low-power positions, both hierarchically in the organization and socially by race.
It’s not a 9-5 thing for us; it’s our lives, our families, our names and reputations. So, in meetings, in conversations, in emails, etc., I was always trying to find the balance between what needed to be said, what would actually be heard, and what my own self-care required. I am not sharing this to complain but rather to raise awareness 1) with other BIPOC in HWLs to let you know that if you resonate with these feelings, you are not alone, and 2) with white allies to recognize that though we are so happy to have your support, this work is likely way more exhausting for us than it is for you.
“It’s not a 9-5 thing with us; it’s our lives, our families, our names.”
But this post is for my BIPOC colleagues because we have to regularly navigate when we will be tofu, Field Roast, or Soyrizo. Because everyone’s situation is unique, there is no single, constant, or right choice, which is why I would like to crowdsource with this blog. If you are BIPOC in a HWL, please indulge me in answering the following questions:
- How do we as BIPOC working in HWLs take pride in the good, small steps forward of HWLs towards justice without allowing our praise to legitimize the slow pace of development and/or the low bar to which most HWLs are held?
- How do we hold our HWLs accountable without incurring negative repercussions against ourselves?
- How do we balance our own need to believe in our HWL with our moral obligation to support fellow BIPOC and white allies who are subject to negative repercussions by the same HWL when they risk for justice?
- How do we balance between towing the company line when speaking with other BIPOC outside the organization with the community responsibility to share the truth about the state of the HWLs we work in? Especially if we are in roles to recruit other BIPOC to our orgs?
If you feel comfortable, please share your answers to one or more of these questions in the comments section of this post. I’m eager to learn from your experiences and to use this platform to share with others who may be grappling with the same issues. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, I understand; it can be vulnerable to do so, and maybe not in a safe way. But, I would still encourage you to either internally process these questions on your own or externally with a trusted BIPOC colleague. We so often navigate our work situations by gut feeling and it can help to bring the issues and strategies to conscious awareness.
On a related note, if you are in need of a BIPOC community to engage with on topics like this, please check out the Seattle Chapter of the Environmental Professionals of Color, which is a program of the Center for Diversity in the Environment and has chapters across the country, or Future For Us, which is an organization dedicated to supporting womxn of color in business. Both are fantastic organizations from which I draw so much life and inspiration!
How I can help: If your organization is working to center justice and really address DEI in its work, they will need to grapple with these questions in order to best support their nondominant staff and stakeholders. And I can help with that! My job is to work with leadership teams to set and achieve their diversity goals, so contact me at Sapna@SapnaStrategies.com!